Charles de Montesquieu Criticism

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Robert Shakleton (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Shakleton, Robert. “Montesquieu and Machiavelli: A Reappraisal.” In Essays on Montesquieu and the Enlightenment, edited by David Gilson and Martin Smith, pp. 117-31. Oxford: Alden Press, 1988.

[In this essay, first published in 1964, Shakleton details Machiavelli's influence on Montesquieu, noting the similarities in several passages from many of Montesquieu's earlier works. Shakleton suggests that while Montesquieu took much from Machiavelli on religion and the republic, many of the borrowed ideas were merely a stimulus for Montesquieu to develop a broader philosophy.]

The names of the President of the Parlement of Bordeaux and of the Florentine Secretary have often been linked together, both in the realm of the history of literature and ideas, and in relation to practical politics. A nineteenth-century political writer, Maurice Joly, a fighter for freedom and a victim of oppression, died by his own hand in 1877, having published thirteen years before, almost clandestinely, a Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu. This robust political pamphlet in the form of a dialogue of the dead, originally directed against Napoleon III, was plagiarised curiously in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and met a more honourable and more suitable fate in being reissued in 1948 by the publishing house Calmann-Lévy in a collection directed by Raymond Aron and entitled Liberté de l'esprit. It was to support a different cause that Marc Duconseil published in 1943 his Machiavel et Montesquieu: recherche sur un principe d'autorité. This is an attack on democracy inspired by the ideologies dominant on the European continent in the year of its publication, and it is certainly best forgotten. But at least, when considered along with Joly's Dialogue aux enfers, it shows how varied are the causes served by confrontation or comparison of Montesquieu and Machiavelli. These two philosophers have each been the object of the most widely differing interpretations. Each has been regarded as reactionary, each as progressive; but however habituated one has become to paradoxes of judgment, one is still surprised to be reminded that, for all his Whig loyalties, it was to Montesquieu that Macaulay ascribed ‘a lively and ingenious, but an unsound mind’ and Machiavelli whom he called ‘judicious and candid’.

The study of the relationship of two persons who are both, in a sense, sub judice could perhaps throw some light on each of them; and assessing Montesquieu's attitude and debt to Machiavelli is an important task and one which has been effectively undertaken already. It is the aim of this paper to clarify, to correct, and to add to what has been written on Montesquieu's debt to Machiavelli, and to do so especially by using the method of chronological study of Montesquieu's manuscripts.

The essential work on this subject is E. Levi-Malvano, Montesquieu et Machiavelli (Paris 1912). This monograph supersedes everything previously written on the subject and is itself far from being superseded. The author, known also to eighteenth-century specialists for his researches on the Encyclopédie in Tuscany, knew well the works of both Montesquieu and Machiavelli. He had access to documents at Bordeaux which are subsequently lost and have only recently come to light again; and if sometimes he announces as certain an influence which is probable, and as probable one which is just possible, his work is still solid as well as suggestive. Since then important contributions have been made by Friedrich Meinecke in Die Entstehung des Historismus (München 1959; first edition 1936), by V. De Caprariis in his article ‘I “Romani” del Saint-Evremond’ (Rivista storica italiana, 1955), and by Sergio Cotta in his Montesquieu e la scienza della società (Torino 1953) as well as in his translation, Lo Spirito delle leggi (Torino 1952). Interesting suggestions have been made by J. H. Whitfield in his Machiavelli (Oxford 1947). Some new facts were disclosed in my Montesquieu:...

(The entire section is 101,251 words.)